The Journey West

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Courtesy the David Rumsey Historical Maps Collection.

The initial discovery of gold in California in 1848 was a defining moment, not only for America but also for the world. As the word spread, people from far-flung nations were as eager to abandon their lives in search of treasure, as were people from the cramped east coast of the United States. A special term emerged—those who rushed to California upon receiving news of gold discovery were called “forty-niners.” South Americans sailed up the west coast of the continent or around Cape Horn, braving one of the most hazardous stretches of ocean on earth. Emigrants from China and the Philippines made their way across the Pacific, and the sailors who worked the ships were entranced by word of gold, abandoning their ships in San Francisco’s harbor for the elusive promise of fortune. Europeans journeyed by train and ship and wagon across the vast expanse of prairie in the center of the continent. They joined the American migrants from the east coast as they made their way along the recently established Oregon Trail and detoured southwest somewhere in what would become Wyoming, crossing deserts and mountains and risking life and limb in pursuit of the promised gold. This pattern would continue with future gold strikes—word spread around the world, luring anyone who dreamt of improving their condition to follow the trail toward the possibility of striking it rich.